As with Voice – where people speak best for themselves, if we have ears to listen – so too with Agency. Agency is about respecting people’s ability to decide for themselves what is best for their own lives.
In labour theory, a famous study [link] demonstrated that factory line workers were both happier and more productive when control of the speed of the assembly line was handed directly to them. (Though if memory serves correctly, there was no comparative study to assess whether paying better wages would have had the same effect!)
In counselling or therapy it can happen that a therapist can see an issue or problem, or solution, very quickly – perhaps even in the first session. However, pointing it out straight away might be very inappropriate, cruel or even harmful if the patient/client is not ready or able to deal with that information at that time. They have to wait and gently point them in new directions until they eventually figure it out for themselves.
People with abusive domestic partners often take multiple attempts at leaving before they finally make a clean break. Support services, however painful it may be to watch, need patience and perseverance to be on standby to provide assistance and help when the person finally makes a move for change. They know from experience, you cannot push people before they are ready.
In international development, theorists like Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen have argued the need to recognise people’s right to achieve ‘what they decide to achieve.’ And others he argues, including aid donors and development agencies, should see them not only as people “whose well-being demands concern, but also as people whose responsible agency must be recognised.”
Or again: “nothing about us, without us.”
And if none of those examples connect, dear readers, consider the council worker in the Deacon Blue song “Dignity” who works quietly for over 20 years while saving up to buy a dinghy to sail round the west coast in his old age. His right to dignity includes his right to agency: to achieve what he decides to achieve. In this case, buying a boat.
Agency is sometimes called ‘self determination’ at a personal level – but can also be exercised in groups or even as nations. “The people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to decide how Scotland should be governed”, might ring a bell, for example. Central to ideas of inclusion, whether of citizens, an electorate, a target audience, a market segment, a key affected population, or whatever, is acknowledging and respecting that people are best placed to decide for themselves what is best for them.
Irrespective of gender identity, age*, level of education, or ability, the idea of Agency recognises that people have a right to take decisions about their own lives. This principle still holds true even, or perhaps especially, when people are faced with very limited options, or where someone in a relationship of power over a person disapproves of some or all of their available options.
Agency can also involve resisting others attempts to control our lives as much as it involves making active positive choices. The last resort of protest by political prisoners, for example, is to refuse food.
* Even within the child rights frameworks, where children often do not have legal agency until they reach the age of 16 or 18, children are recognised as being the experts on their own lives and their thoughts and feelings are (or at least should be) taken into account in determining what is in their best interests.